Two docs on literary titan Algren screen this month

Nelson Algren, photographed by Art Shay

The great Chicago writer Nelson Algren gets the documentary treatment with not just one but two feature-length projects debuting this month: Mark Blottner and Denis Mueller’s 20-years-in-the-making Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All, and Michael Caplan’s Algren.

Blottner and Mueller’s The End is Nothing previews Oct. 3 in advance of its festival run and Caplan’s Algren has its world premiere Oct. 14 in the 50th Chicago International Film Festival.

Living in Algren’s old Wicker Park stomping grounds in the ‘80s, “reading about Algren’s characters and the environment rang true because there were still remnants of those archetypes around,” says Blottner, now an interactive designer and developer.

When he started his film in 1990, Blottner got initial support from the Nelson Algren Committee, which hosts an annual “birthday party” for Algren.  Algren biographer Bettina Drew helped Blottner land interviews with luminaries like Kurt Vonnegut and Algren’s close friend Studs Terkel.

Mark Bottner and Denis Mueller, producers of "Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, the Road is All"Blottner ran out of money and shelved the project for 20 years, before reviving it in 2012, when he joined forced with Mueller (Howard Zinn: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train).  Mueller in turn brought on Ilko Davidov of BulletProof Film producer and CIMMFEST cofounder, cofounder, who produced William S. Burroughs: A Man Within.

Mueller says they’ve got exclusive rights to Algren’s final video interview, recorded in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where Algren died in 1981. 

The End is Nothing also examines Algren’s 1,000-page FBI file. “I thought it was important in this age of surveillance to include this,” Mueller says.  “What did he write that made the FBI view him as so dangerous that there was a file larger on him than any other author?”

From viewing online excerpts, Mueller says their film is “more of a biography about Algren and his life within a period of history,” whereas Caplan’s film Algren “seems more postmodern which does little to reveal Algren’s own voice.”

“We wish them luck on their completion of it,” Caplan says about The End is Nothing.

Caplan had access to Art Shay’s massive Algren photos

A Columbia College professor, Michael Caplan (A Magical Vision) grew up on the East Side, steel mill territory, with “working man bars on 103rd Street by our house,” he says.  “Political corruption and the working poor were part of my childhood.  So I understood the characters and the world that Algren wrote about.”

Caplan says Art Shay, whose photos chronicled Algren’s life and down-and-out milieu for decades, told him in 2008, ”‘You should do a film about Algren.’ I was shocked that no one had made one, and asked him if we could have access to his hundreds of photos of Algren.  He said yes, and that was all I needed to hear.”

Caplan calls Algren no less than “the first modern artist, post World War II. He lived the life that he wrote about, and pointed out the contradictions between the Eisenhower American Dream and the reality of the urban poor."Algren" filmmaker Michael Caplan at Algren's house in Miller Beach, Ind. 

“He was the foundation for the Beats and the Gonzo Journalism movement, as acknowledged by a range of writers from Hunter S. Thompson to Cormack McCarthy.  His focus on the people on the bottom of the social spectrum still resonates in literature, movies and the visual arts,” says Caplan, who produced with Gail Sonnenfeld and Nicole Bernardi-Reis.

“We hope to bring Algren’s reputation as both a writer and an icon back to the forefront of American culture and that the spark of our film will spur people to look around their own worlds and re-examine their perspective on the poor and the dispossessed that they encounter in their daily life.”

The End is Nothing sneak preview Oct.3 is at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark, 7 p.m.

Algren screens at AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois; Oct. 14 at 6 p.m., Oct. 20 at 12:15 p.m., Oct. 21 at 8 p.m.